By Imogen Rose-Smith
COVID-19 has been devastating to the Navajo Nation. The indigenous American community has seen one of the highest infection rates in North America and has been struggling with the impact of the virus, which first officially reached the U.S. in March. To date Navajo Nation has reported 9,139 cases of COVID and 462 deaths. With a population of 174,000 the Nation has a higher case per 100,000 rate of 5,262. Far higher than New York (2,167) Florida (2,290) or New Jersey (2,077), three states which have been among the hardest hit in the U.S
The community, which refers to itself as Dikos, is practicing strict lockdown procedures, reminiscent of those implemented by New York and California early in the pandemic. But states and communities around the Navajo territories are opening up while also battling their own surge in cases. This leads to concerns that hospitals will not have capacity for indigenous patients, and that the Navajo Nation will continue to get re-infected with the deadly respiratory virus.
The 17,544,500 acres that make up the Navajo territory are situated at the intersection of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado (although the territory does not have any land in the Centennial State.) Arizona in particular has experienced a surge of cases in the past two weeks, and there are concerns about hospital capacity. (Although this recent analysis by Bloomberg’s John Authers suggests there is some reason to hope Arizona’s ICU and hospital beds will not be overwhelmed.) The state was also quick to reopen in May, and, experts say, is now paying a price. On June 29th it was forced to shut down once again, as state officials battled to contain the surge. While recent efforts appear to have flattened the curve, Arizona’s COVID-19 case rate per 100,000 is now 2,466. The second highest in the U.S.
While Arizona’s Republican Governor Doug Ducey lifted the state’s stay-at-home order on May 15th, and prevented state municipalities from imposing their own order, the Navajo Nation has been quietly continuing with lock-down. It reissued its stay-at-home order as recently as June 5th, and has imposed consecutive 57 hour weekend curfews, during which people are not allowed to leave their homes for anything but the most essential purposes.
Early on in the pandemic, the Navaho Nation, which has its own healthcare clinics on its land, put out a call for help from doctors. A group of doctors in California were among those who heeded the request. These doctors recently returned to their home state, and earlier this month CNBC caught up with some of them. Their stories are harrowing. One of the medics interviewed, Dr. Jeanne Noble, described a 70-year-old Navajo man who having been hospitalized with COVID recovered and was discharged:
His home was 30 miles away, and he had no way to contact his family. So he started walking home in the blazing heat, eventually collapsing from dehydration.
After being picked up by paramedics, the patient was checked back into the hospital, where he had just recently been discharged.
“He didn’t have a car or a phone and he was also diabetic and out of insulin,” she said. “Unfortunately, this is a relatively familiar story.” Noble pointed out that there is a service available that provides transportation to Navajo patients, but it’s not perfect. Sometimes there isn’t a ride available, or patients aren’t given a number to call.
The sheer poverty of the community – the current unemployment rate is close to 50 percent and the average household income is well below the poverty line – means that COVID-19 has been especially devastating. Many households have multiple people living in them. Many households do not have electricity or running water. There are only a handful of grocery stores on the reservation, some people have to drive up to three hours to get food and water.
CNBC interviewed another doctor who described what happened with a patent who tested positive for COVID:
Dr. Tara Sood, an emergency medicine specialist, recalled how one of her patients tested positive but was told to return home to recover.
After speaking with him, she learned he lived in a small one-bedroom unit with his wife and two others, making it near-impossible for him to isolate himself.
“Thankfully, we got him a hotel room,” she said. But Dr. Sood noted that “socio-economic status” plays a huge role in both Covid-19 exposure and recovery. “There were so many patients living in homes with eight other people with nowhere else to go,” she said.
As COVID-19 continues to take its toll, the Navajo Nation and other indigenous communities around the U.S. are among its greatest victims.
The Navajo Nation is accepting donations to help with its COVID-19 relief effort.